Interview with Graeme Roy, Director of News Photography for the Canadian Press

Graeme Roy, Director of News Photography for The Canadian Press

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your job and your background?

I started working as a part-time photo editor for The Canadian Press while I was still in school. I continued to shoot for many years as a freelancer and doing things like hockey and baseball for CP in my early years. When I got hired full-time, shooting slipped off the radar a bit because I was working full time as an editor, there are only so many hours in a day after a point. I sold all my Nikon gear and bought my first Leica M4p rangefinder and three lenses – a 35, 50 and 90. I eventually traded that for an M6 which I still own to this day, and very occasionally use.

Since people move around in jobs so much more now, I’m a bit of anomaly in that I’ve spent my entire career in one company. Starting as a part-time photo editor, freelancing on the side, then eventually moving to full-time. Over time I was made the Night Slot Editor, a position which made me responsible for our content that was moving to the wire in the busiest time of the day.

From there I became News Editor so I did the majority of the assigning, or maybe more accurately the back-stopping to make sure our guys in the various parts of the country were on top of what was going on in their areas. But there was still a lot of assigning to be done, quality control, and long-range event planning. It was in this job that I got my first tastes of arranging things like elections, Olympic coverage/Commonwealth Games/Pan Am Games, and other big events like a Papal Tour or big news events like a G8 meeting or similar.

After doing that for a while I moved into the Director of Photography chair, which really is much the same thing only with that added pleasure of doing more paperwork, paying all the bills and balancing budgets.

How did you get into photography and what was your first camera?

Like many people I started shooting photos as a young kid. My older brother, whom was a giant influence on me in many things, brought home an old Pentax camera from where he was working at a summer job at the time. Seems they were going to toss it out so he brought it home. The cool thing about it was it also came with an amazing bellows attachment for shooting extreme close-ups. It was a screw-mount camera I remember, and you’d put this bellows on that had a long track on it, it must have been six or seven inches long when fully extended. That was one of my first ‘a-ha’ moments in photography, it was a huge door-opener.

Soon after my brother moved to Toronto to go to school, and I wanted to get my own camera gear. He showed me the wonderful ways of Toronto pawn shops at the time, where you could pickup a used Nikkormat FT or FTn for $125. I bought one and a 50mm 1.4 and off I went. That was the real beginning of the love affair. In the years that followed I too moved to Toronto, and I can’t tell you how many of those cameras I went through! But they were plentiful in the pawn shops and if you broke one, you just went and bought another. I then started to seriously upgrade my gear and loved the Nikon FE series cameras because they had a match-the-needle metering system rather than the three LED system used in the FM models. I loved those cameras, and really, that vision of photography was rekindled when full-frame digital cameras finally came out. Having that full-sized sensor was like coming home with the way the depth-of-field worked and just everything about how photos looked with them.

Street Painting, photo by Graeme Roy

What kind of camera do you and your staff shoot with, and why did you choose it?

That’s a good question because we just moved to Nikon and outfitted our staff with full kits that include: D4 bodies, 17-35, 24-70, 70-200, 300, 400, and in some bureaus extra D800’s and the 200-400 zoom. We also bought all the supporting gear around them too including flashes (although hardly anybody uses flashes these days) and the best extra bit: wireless transmitters for filing direct-from-camera at events. That has proven to be very cool. It’s not without its fallbacks of course, but when everything comes together it is amazing.

All the high-end gear is competitive these days, you can’t really go too wrong. But you do spend a lot of money to be on the high end.

Who inspires you, do you have a mentor?

There have been many people that have had a really huge impact on my photo life. As I said my brother got the whole ball rolling and is responsible for turning me on to it. In the early years I grew in my career, I had expert and freely given guidance and advice from some of the top photographers and editors this country has produced – people like Fred Chartrand, Ron Poling, Peter Bregg, Bob Carroll, and Doug Ball among others. I learned everything I know about running a wire service from them. These guys are the Deans of Photojournalism in this country, and I am extremely fortunate to have been able to be schooled by them.

But I am a firm believer that you can and should learn something new every day, if not literally then at least figuratively – you have to have the attitude that everybody else knows stuff you don’t and you can learn from every person you come in contact with. I lean very heavily on guys on my staff who freely offer their advice and support (or point out when I’m being an idiot) and I totally count on that honest and free-flowing exchange of views to keep us on the right track. I owe them all a huge debt for their absolute support of our mission. They will go to the wall for me, and I for them. There is not a guy on our crew that does not proudly wear a CP tattoo. It’s in our DNA. We’re lifers.

Everybody has their days where they shoot routine events and assignments, but we’re always looking for something different to come out of a job. You have to have the attitude of here’s what I’ll shoot for the wire, photos that are expected…but here’s something I shot for me. Something different, something new.

I’m inspired daily by great work, and it comes from a myriad of places. I see it on our wire, and I see it on the AP wire (we’re the Canadian partner of AP so we are the conduit through which their photos reach Canadians), but I also see it in other places – photo blogs, slideshows at newspapers around the world, and yes….even places like Instagram. It’s very easy to fall into the “Instagram is evil” view of the world, but I think that’s exceptionally closed-minded, and frankly it is generally uttered by the dinosaurs. If it was a different age they would have been railing against the 35mm camera. “It’s a toy! There’s no place for that in serious photography…”

Sure, there is a ton of crap on Instagram, but you are totally missing the point if all you are seeing are crappy selfies by teenage girls and photos of plates of food. You are looking in the wrong place, and that is the fault of the viewer, not the service. There are many great photographers sharing photos on there, all you have to do is find them. Some of them are total amateurs, housewives with an iPhone taking snaps of their kids or a businessman who shoots architecture on his way home from work. Whatever, there are people on there for whom it is an awesome vehicle for self-expression and who are we to say their photos are invalid? And there are ‘real’ photographers who produce amazing work. Guys like Koci and Keepsy blow my mind on a regular basis. But there are many less-famous photographers who produce photos everyday, and frankly, I think a lot of them work harder at trying to come up with something new or exciting every day than many so-called professionals. It might not always work perfectly, and everybody has views on the validity of altered or filtered photos, but they are out there doing it not just sitting around talking about it.

I love Instagram, I love the daily feed of the unexpected. Maybe for me it’s a pleasurable escape from what can be on some days a pretty depressing feed of photos of meyhem, war, bombings and the like. Sometimes you just like to look at a photo and enjoy it for its own sake – no more, no less.

Photo by Graeme Roy

What was you best/worst moment in photography?

Almost impossible to say. I’ve had lots of personal success, and stuff that didn’t end up so great. I have learned that you can briefly celebrate the victories for what they are, but you have to know that just as fast you can suffer a crushing defeat. Don’t celebrate the victories too much, don’t wallow in the losses. The wire is a living, breathing animal and it has a voracious appetite. Deadlines and photo play come and go every minute of the day, it is truly a wheel on a perpetual motion machine. Nothing is ever, ever over. There is always a next time, always another opportunity, always another victory, and always another loss.

How many photos do you see on a daily basis?

I don’t know, depends on the day. If I’m super busy doing ‘boss’ stuff I don’t see as much as I’d like so maybe I’ll only see our feed which might be a couple hundred photos. Other days I can really dig in and give a good look at everything that has come through the door, so that would be thousands and thousands of photos in the day. But most days are a combination of the two – I always have all the feeds up and running on monitors so I see photos coming and going constantly.

How do you decide which photos the Canadian Press will publish?

Sometimes that decision is easy, sometimes not. Like it or not we live in a world where clients have websites that need photos with stories, and we have to provide that. Sometimes it can be a great photo, or it can be what can only be described as filler.

We have a daily agenda of news that is happening, and it’s our mandate to provide photo coverage for as much of that as we possibly can. And there are all the things that come up that are newsworthy that we scramble to in a day, because that’s what we do.

So we always are gathering photos in a purposeful fashion. We’ll weed out the superfluous as we can, but as more and more sites get more and more photos from more and more places, they demand a greater variety of choice from a given event. This leads to what can be admittedly some over-filing of photos in the name of choice. Does a client really need 12 different photos of some actor from an interview, no, not really. Do they want 12 photos, yep, they sure do.

When it comes down to photos that are difficult because of their graphic or shocking content, we make hard decisions on what is required and what is gratuitous. The shocking ‘Falling Man’ photos from AP on 9-11 for example, are a perfect reference point. Yes, they were terrible to see. But they had to be shown to the world to tell those people’s story. The terrible sense of loss of all hope for those people is an important and very real part of the story of that day. We knew on that day that everything coming in was of historic value.

It is owed to those people to tell their story so that everybody can know it. That’s our job. I was recently at the 9-11 memorial in New York and it was an overwhelmingly emotional visit for me, in great part because of those very photos. I’ll never forget what happened there, for my entire life. And that’s what our job is to do, tell people’s stories so that they are not forgotten. It was our generation’s Pearl Harbor, or Hindenburg, or Dieppe…or many other historically defining moments.

Walking Dead, photo by Graeme Roy

Are there a few photos that have come  across your desk, that have really stuck with you? If so why did they?

yes, but I qualify it with the caveat that I see so many terrific photos it’s pretty overwhelming really when to take them as a group. But I do have a couple of favourites that always pop into my head. The first is a photo by Tom Hanson, a CP photographer from Ottawa who very sadly passed away a few years ago. Far too young and in his prime, it was a huge blow to all of us. I always loved his photo of a bagpiper playing as water cannons blasted defiant protesters at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. For many reasons, some sentimental, it’s a photo that always comes to mind.

Photo by Tom Hanson

Another photo I have always loved is one by Kevin Frayer, who worked at CP before joining AP where he now works. Kevin was in Afghanistan for the arrival of the first Canadian troops more than a decade ago, and since they were taking a long time to arrive, he worked on other stories in the meantime. He was able to get into a school to shoot the very first day of school for a group of children after the end of Taliban rule.  It was a major feat to get into the school, especially since there are young girls there, he expressions of excitement and joy on the kids faces has stuck with me since the day we put the photo on the wire.

Photo by Kevin Frayer

What role does post production play in Photography for the Canadian Press?

Not much at all really. We stay very close to the line in terms of what is allowed and not allowed in a traditional photographic context. The funny thing about that though is that the ‘golden days’ of photography actually was home to some of the nastiest darkroom shenanigans ever. The ‘hand of God’ burning of photos was commonplace, yet somehow this era of photography has become the touch-stone of what is or should be allowable, which is somewhat laughable in my mind because those golden days were not at all golden.

Now we have the technology to alter photos by pixel, rather than a hole in a piece of cardboard and maybe some bleach. For me the technology has no place in the equation, it’s not about that at all. It’s an integrity issue, not a technology issue. You are either truthful in your representation of your photo or you are not, and that has nothing to do with the computer and everything to do with one’s ethics.

I firmly believe that as long as we are truthful to the reader about a photo, there is room to expand from beyond our extremely small box we have placed ourselves into. We’ve experimented with  6×6 Holgas shooting 35mm film so that the exposure spreads across the entire emulsion included the sprocket holes in our photos, we’ve used old-style Polaroids for fashion, we’ve used Hipstamatic on an iPhone. The common thread is that we told our readers exactly what we were doing, we didn’t try to hide it at all. We told them in plain language exactly what they were seeing and why.

Portrait of Daniel Lanois, photo by Graeme Roy

How has the raise of the amateur photographer, and cellphone photography changed your industry?

I don’t know that is really has that much to be honest, and that to me is actually a little surprising. When the technology evolved to the point where anybody can shoot a decently exposed photo on a moderately-priced camera, that for sure was far better than anything a pro could have achieved not that long ago, you’d think that there would be a plethora of new photos coming on stream. Add to that the quality of iPhone camera photos and that cell phones with cameras are ubiquitous, you can see a whole vista in front of you of possibilities. But the reality is even a great camera in the wrong hands does not yield much of anything. A poorly composed photo is still a poorly composed photo. A photo shot from too far away is still too far away. Technology does not create a better photographer. It may give some people the ability to express themselves and share their photos more easily, but it does not magically transport them to be in the right spot at the right time to take a great news photo. It is not the first reaction of a person who is not trained as a news photographer to think of capturing a moment, anticipating the moment actually, because they are not approaching life from that perspective. A photographer has their antennae up, anticipating, watching, coiled and ready to spring. Amateurs react to what already happened and then take a photo. There is a huge difference.

This doesn’t mean that there are not great photos that have popped up every now and then, shot by people with iPhones out airplane windows or a hobbiest-level DSLR at the scene of a big fire or some sort of calamity. We often crowd-source photos from places like Twitter or Facebook. Sometimes they can be perfectly useable photos and they may be sometimes the only photo of something that happened, and as crappy as they are they get used because that is all there is. But that doesn’t make them great photography. Just because a photo gets used doesn’t mean it’s good, it just means it was the best available at the time. It’s important not to confuse the two.

Have we seen a huge influx of awesome, world-changing spot news photos come to the fore now that practically every person in the 1st world has some sort of mobile image capture device? You’d think with literally millions and millions of mobile devices in use every day more important news photos would be captured, but really that has just not been the case.

Photo by Graeme Roy

How did you make the jump to full time photography?

I don’t know that I have! I don’t know, I’ve been in photography my entire working life in one form or another. I’d like to do more of my own shooting, but as I stated earlier with other responsibilities there are only so many hours in a day and it is very important to have a quality of life outside of work otherwise the stress will eat you alive.

I’m having lots of fun now learning all the new cameras and the technology that goes along with them. Even something small like the flash commander mode in the D800 has hit me in the head like a 2×4. It’s just amazing stuff.

Do you have any tips for people just getting into photography?

Be open to it, seek out photos that you find pleasing and understand them. Figure out why they work, and frankly, how you can copy that and do it yourself. You can learn something from every photo, even if it’s how not to do something, that’s just as important as knowing what to do.
Be open to critique, but understand that that’s just one person’s opinion, and even if they are some big-wheel editor or photographer it is still only their view. It may very well be ‘right’, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. But you have to take note, if you ask somebody for their opinion it’s because you respect what they have to say. There is no point in seeking out comment about your work if you are just going to ignore it.

I find that photography is the easy part, a lot of it can be learned with some work, but people’s attitudes and willingness to learn is far more complicated and in the end is what separates people out.

Silence, photo by Graeme Roy

Where is the one place in the world you would love to photography?

I don’t know if it’s really a specific geographical place that I can say. It’s more opportunity for me, the free space in my head to let go and see. I can find something to shoot and enjoy it anywhere, given the ability to just take a camera and walk around with no other things on my plate…I could be anywhere and be perfectly happy given the opportunity.

If you could only choose one lens for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Oh, it may be a cliche I suppose but give me a nifty 50 on a full-frame camera and I could live with that. I’d be hard-pressed though to choose between a 50 1.4 and a 35 1.4….but in the end I’d probably just take the 50 and head into the apocalypse.

Anything else you want to tell the Snapsort community?

Life is frighteningly short. Work is work, but it’s your family that will be with you always. They are all that matters in the end. Balance life priorities. Nobody from work is going to visit you when you are old.

I’’m GraemeGRoy on twitter, g_wah on Instagram and I’m just starting a tumblr blog